​Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 review: A versatile productivity booster that falls just short

Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 is a multifaceted device designed to meet any productivity need and delivers a lot, yet it falls just short of reestablishing the tablet as an essential consumer product level with smartphones or notebooks.

It took a while for tablets to settle on the 10.5-inch screen size. What companies haven't settled on when it comes to tablets is what they can do that smartphones and notebooks can't. Samsung's answer by way of the Galaxy Tab S4 seems to be that it is more versatile, and therefore, an on-the-go productivity booster more than anything else. After a month of use, I found charm in the Tab S4 -- mainly due to its attachable keyboard and the lush 10.5-inch AMOLED screen that brings out the best for multi-window tasks -- but it fell just short of becoming a must-have.

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Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 is the company's latest 2-in-1 premium tablet.

Image: Cho Mu-Hyun

1. Battery

The best part about the Tab S4 is really its battery. At 7,300mAh compared to the Tab S3's 6,000mAh, Samsung delivers the numbers. Both casual use and word-processing-heavy tasks can be done easily throughout the day without having to worry about charging.

As a portable device, I feel this is the best quality, as it allows professionals to focus on their task at hand and start charging once they return home or back to the office. It brings a nice rhythm to daily routines -- important for continuous productivity for workers. I took the Tab S4 with me for couple of business trips that included staying two to three days in hotels and I only had to charge once I returned to the room at night after my long day.

That's not to say it's perfect. Watching YouTube or using the split screen option on tablet mode and opening multiple windows on Samsung DeX mode brought about a noticeably faster battery drain. I would say on-the-go use that's focused on power points or words could handle seven to nine hours easily; once the graphics card starts pitching in work, this falls down to five to six hours fast. Still, with quick charging to boot, it is a considerable improvement compared to its predecessors and on par with or better than the top smartphones out there.

2. Keyboard

The attachable keyboard has some die-hard haters, but the Tab S4's Book Cover Keyboard, sold separately, really brings out the best in the tablet. Long-time tablet users who are more used to the on-screen keyboard set-up may disagree, but newcomers may find the keyboard refreshing.

With the Tab S4, you are basically learning a brand new keyboard layout -- the main reason attachable keyboards have strong detractors -- and initially I was forced to take my eyes away from the screen to look for keys that are't included. But a week or two in, it wasn't as big a bother as I thought it would be. Plus, the keys' tapping sound and their right amount of resistance made me feel like I was doing some real work.

There wasn't an instance when I wanted to resort to the on-screen keyboard, and I returned to the physical keyboard for both play and work no matter where I was. My hands played mouse; the best part was using them with the keyboard when it came to internet searches and split-screen tasks. Plus, for Samsung Dex, the keyboard is a must, but more on that later.

The big downside is that the keyboard is sold separately. Having Samsung DeX, among other things, makes the keyboard an essential tool to tap into the full potential of the Tab S4 and selling it separately at a $149.99 price tag (the Tab S4 itself costs $649.99) feels expensive.

The keyboard-plus-tablet set-up still falls short against other notebooks, and although it is more portable, there is room for improvement. If Samsung wants its tablets established as professional tools, I feel the keyboard should be given for free to foster more fans. Or, if they are demanding that price tag, it should somehow be upgraded to have keys and the overall experience closer to its desktop counterpart.

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Split screen used in combination with the keyboard really brings out the full productivity of the Galaxy Tab S4.

Image: Cho Mu-Hyun

3. 10.5-inch AMOLED screen

Samsung is known for its top-of-the-line hardware in its flagships, especially in displays, and the Tab S4's 10.5-inch AMOLED screen is gorgeous. The bezel is narrower compared to its predecessor and the black model I used, coupled with the beautiful screen, really made the tablet seem like a premium device. The contrast ratio is great and bright colours and the real black all stand out without feeling saturated. The cinema mode makes images even more natural for media consumption, though I rarely used it.

The aspect ratio is 16:10, wider than Tab S3's 4:3, and this is better for watching media content. Is this an enormous plus? Not really, since almost every other device, including smartphones, notebooks, and monitors, are going down that route, so it is expected.

Also: Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review: Big battery and superb S Pen experience

But that wider birth really shines when using multi-window or split screen. The Tab S4 basically incorporates most of the multitask features on the Galaxy Note series and it shines here. The split screen used in combo with the keyboard is when this tablet really deserves the moniker of "productivity booster". And the 10.5-inch really offered enough space for each split screen to lessen the need for scrolling. While I rarely use the split screen on my Galaxy Note 8 because I feel there isn't enough space for two screens, with the Tab S4 it's like having two smartphones side by side. For some tasks I would say it could beat the speed of a desktop.

4. S-Pen

Samsung seems to have intentionally sought out a Montblanc-like design for the Tab S4's S-Pen, which is more rounded and thicker compared to those in the Galaxy Book and Galaxy Note 8 and 9. I am sure this is an intentional design choice to match the productivity theme of the Tab S4 for a more professional or business-oriented look, but it doesn't feel that way once you start using it. It's light, doesn't have heft, and the overall colour comes off as more plastic than premium.

Also: Galaxy Note 9 ongoing review: The good and bad so far CNET

The stylus is very functional and does everything that its cousins can do in other Samsung devices; users can take notes, draw, and use it for search and translate like in the Note series. However, being a Galaxy Note 8 user, I found the sensitivity for Tab S4's pen slightly lacking in comparison. It could be that the ball point is thicker, but I found highlighting and dragging to be more laborious than on the Note, and less accurate. But it does its job. And it's hard to complain too much, since it's included.

It also has a dedicated socket on the left side and the S-Pen doesn't require charging -- a better choice than some of its competitors; Microsoft's Surface Go Pen uses a disposable battery, for example.

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Open dozens of windows with Samsung DeX.

Image: Cho Mu-Hyun

5. Samsung DeX

I had high expectations for Samsung DeX on the Tab S4, and after using DeX mode, I am convinced that the desktop-style is more suited to the tablet than the smartphone. The biggest upside is now you can open multiple windows, and the Tab S4 handles them easily, despite having a Snapdragon 835 instead of the newer 845 that's on the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy Note 9.

I have a habit of just opening new windows endlessly instead of, perhaps more wisely, using a tab on the same window. With the Tab S4, there weren't any noticeable slowdowns after opening over 10 windows. The ability to just do this on a tablet was refreshing in its own way.

Also: Samsung and the Galaxy Note 9's quest for 'meaningful innovation'

That being said, there really isn't much to do on the mode besides surfing the internet since there aren't enough Android-optimised apps; I found myself doing the same things I do in tablet mode. I feel the next iteration should offer users more to do here if this tablet wants to be level with Windows or iOS.

6. No home button, and that's OK I guess

Samsung has rid the home button to match the aesthetics of its recent smartphones. It definitely helps the look of the front of the tablet. However, this has also meant getting rid of the fingerprint sensor, therefore forcing users to use the iris scanner (they can add Intelligence Scan, which scans both eyes and facial features). The company's logic seems to be that the iris scanner is more intuitive, and while it works fine, I feel both options should have been offered on a premium device such as this for more user choice.

The scanner is located near top of the tablet where the 8MP front camera is, and I had to lean sideways to unlock it. What would have been pretty awesome is if I had left my seat and it had the ability to scan me and unlock right away upon my return. If the fingerprint scanner isn't coming back, I would like the facial scanner upgraded so it can read eyes and faces from the side.

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Samsung offers a variety of choices to use the Galaxy Tab S4: S-Pen stylus, the keyboard, and your hands.

Image: Cho Mu-Hyun

7. Harman AKG quad speaker

The Tab S4 has a quad audio system that is AKG tuned, which is new to Samsung's tablet line. It also has Dolby ATMOS to help out when you want to watch a movie or two. It's richer than what came before and than what's offered on the company's smartphones, but not as cinematic as I hoped it would be.

Samsung really hasn't gotten audio down, and I think it mostly comes down to hardware design. Hopefully for the next iteration the company can tune the speakers to offer more booming sounds.

8. Mostly work, with a little play

There are other miscellaneous features packed in, like the 13MP back and 8MP front camera. The microSD slot is welcomed and the tablet comes in 64GB and 256GB internal storage. The Galaxy Note 9 comes in a 512GB model so the same premium speed would have been welcomed on the Tab S4, but it seems the company decided against it, either due to cost issues or to avoid stealing the thunder from the Note 9. But more internal storage would have gone well with Samsung DeX; desktop features are there to handle the heavy-duty work that eats more memory.

Having the Qualcomm 835, which launched last year, and 4GB RAM, I feel can handle any productivity or multimedia task. After all, mobile device specs are currently overkill. The Daily Board feature where the tablet acts as a calendar and clock when docked on the charging pad isn't bad, but because my alarm is set on the smartphone it's never really the first screen I look for.

Now a minor problem I have with the Tab S4 is that it's really all about work, not play. As with the Galaxy Note series, Samsung is promoting the productivity aspect of this tablet, and it definitely delivers a lot in that regard. In essence, play usually refers to multimedia consumption or gaming, but the Tab S4 doesn't seem to boast any advantage in that sense. Yes, the 10.5-inch AMOLED display is gorgeous, but so are other Samsung premium products and high-end monitors that most consumers may already own.

Perhaps Samsung can add a dedicated button (since the Tab S4 doesn't have a Bixby button) that switches back and forth between work and play, as well as a more simple, intuitive interface for the "Play Mode", such as having a game launcher, or even another version that would otherwise make jumping into play mode a bit easier.

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The Galaxy Tab S4 can double as a daily board when docked for charging. Because, why not?

Image: Cho Mu-Hyun

9. Conclusion: A worthy go-to device that's pricey

The Galaxy Tab S4 tries hard to be a must-have device for the modern day enterprise user, and while it succeeds in many areas, it fails in others. I am sold on the advantages that tablets can bring over smartphones and notebooks when it comes to portability and productivity. There is a role to play for a 10.5-inch screen on a tablet that can't be achieved by that on a six-inch smartphone or 13-inch notebook. I love the Tab S4's adaptability and versatility offered by its wide screen and accessories such as the keyboard and stylus that can be used in combination. But the goal post here is Apple's iPad Pro, and Samsung simply succeeds in offering an equivalent Android product that will be welcomed by Android users.

That being said, the biggest obstacle is price. It costs $649.99. In South Korea, the tablet is offered with 6GB RAM and costs 792,000 won with 64GB internal storage. With added accessories such as the keyboard or possibly an HDMI cable to link Samsung DeX with a monitor, that price climbs higher than a premium smartphone.

If Samsung is aiming to consolidate hardcore fans, it might succeed, but for it to become a mass device, either $100 should be cut from the price tag or the company should add more premium features to later iterations, such as more play content or free accessories.

Sales of the Tab S4 begin in South Korea on Wednesday, August 29.

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